Few people have heard of Ray Palmer outside the science fiction and UFO communities, and even within these, he is remembered mostly as a genial huckster. When he was editor of the magazine Amazing Stories during the late 1930s and ’40s, he told prospective writers to “gimme bang-bang,” which hardly qualified him as the Maxwell Perkins of science fiction. The stories he published were largely forgettable, except for those that were notorious, such as a series by Richard Shaver about an ancient, underground race of evil beings attacking humanity. Palmer supported his author’s assertion that they were factual rather than fictional, which, consequently, sent Amazing Stories’ circulation skyrocketing. Readers were divided over the stories’ veracity and Palmer’s honesty, but Life magazine trumpeted the controversy, and it was great for business. Palmer also latched onto the UFO phenomena that took off in 1947 by publishing some of the earliest “nonfiction” magazines and books dedicated to space aliens. A diminutive figure (4-foot-8), Palmer clearly loved a tall tale. But is there anything more about him we want to know now?
Fred Nadis’s insightful biography demonstrates that Palmer is significant as well as intriguing. He’s exemplary because he embraced marvels in a scientific age that claims to disavow them. His approach is widespread today: He entertained the incredible with his imagination while skeptically probing it with his reason. Nadis notes that Palmer “encouraged dual interpretations like a sailor tacking into the wind.” His perspective anticipated Dana Scully and Fox Mulder of the “X-Files”: both “I Want To Believe” and “Trust No One.” They — and we — are his heirs.
Palmer had an unquenchable thirst for wonder, which partly compensated for the horrible accident that marred his life. As a 7-year-old in 1917, he was hit by a truck, leaving him with a mangled spine, stunted growth and a hunchback. When children mocked him in later years, he would tell them, “I’m from Mars.”
Typically for Palmer, this unlikely claim had an element of truth, for he had become an avid science fiction fan and spent much of his time inhabiting imaginary worlds. He was one of the first members of organized science fiction fandom in the 1930s and won a prize from Amazing Stories for an essay in which he affirmed the genre’s emphasis on “actual scientific facts and ideas not based on unfounded theory.” After he became editor of the magazine in 1938, his passion for divergent ideas led him to violate this principle in the fiction while reaffirming it in his chatty editorials.
Science fiction has always relied on what H.G. Wells called “an ingenious use of scientific patter.” But Palmer went well beyond this to blurring the line between fact and fiction. He enjoyed publishing fake biographies of the pseudonyms he wrote under, once including a bizarre photo of himself in disguise.
In 1943, Palmer received a manuscript from Richard Shaver, a steelworker who was prey to hearing voices. Shaver sincerely believed that the Earth was under perpetual siege by deranged beings skulking in underground caverns. He said he had been captive of the “dero,” and he was desperate to expose their secrets and save mankind. Palmer began publishing Shaver’s stories in 1945, daring his readers to refute their alleged truth. Surprisingly, many readers responded by relating their own harrowing encounters with the dero. Occultists located the caverns on the astral plane.
By the time he left Amazing Stories in 1949, Palmer had transformed it into a magazine specializing in the paranormal and occult — “Psi Fi” rather than rational SF. Many science fiction fans boycotted Amazing Stories for ignoring the scientific foundation of the genre. Palmer responded by questioning the nature of reason and the methods of science. “At his best, he knew that people who knew were full of baloney,” Nadis observes. “That included those who clung to religious or scientific orthodoxy.” In 1948, Palmer began publishing Fate magazine, followed by other periodicals dedicated to UFOs and similar outré topics, all promoting his outlook of skeptical credulity. He remained friends with Shaver, and their mutual support is one of the most touching threads of this engaging account.
Nadis is alert to the dangers of Palmer’s openness to all possibilities. As he aged, Palmer sometimes lost his critical detachment and embraced right-wing conspiracy theories. He serves as a cautionary example of how difficult it is to remain both enchanted and rational. But like many others, Ray Palmer mainly got his “bang-bang” from this delicate balance.
Saler is the author of “As If: Modern Enchantment and the Literary Prehistory of Virtual Reality.”
THE MAN FROM MARS
Ray Palmer’s Amazing Pulp Journey
By Fred Nadis
Tarcher/Penguin. 289 pp. $28.95